Monday, 22 July 2013

What would YOU do with 12 children?

Cheaper by the Dozen 

{what mamma read in July}

Ask most parents what they would do with a dozen children and they would no doubt tell you they’d rapidly lose whatever degree of sanity they currently possessed. This was not the case, however, for Lillian Moller Gilbreth, a respect American psychologist, and her husband Frank Bunker Gilbreth, a pioneer in the field of motion-time efficiency, who teamed up to bring a grand total of 12 children into the world between 1905 and 1922.

The story of how they not only survived, but so famously thrived, is recounted by two of the Gilbreth clan, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth Jr, in their 1948 novel Cheaper by the Dozen. Except for a house packed to the rafters with youngsters, the novel bears no resemblance whatsoever to the 2003 film of the same name, although there is an earlier film version  made in 1950 that adheres much closer to the original storyline. Exactly why the filmmakers would have wanted to defer from the novel remains a mystery to me, for while I remember the film as being well, quite unmemorable, the Gilbreth’s memoirs of their unconventional childhood under the leadership or their eccentric father and exceedingly patient mother is a hilarious account of the deliciously mischievous deeds of a dozen red-headed girls and boys. The authors narrate anecdotes from their childhood that range from amusing to side-splitting. Despite being set a century ago, the themes are also universally accessible even though the story is peppered with antiquated but endearing expressions such as “Mercy Maud!” (Mrs. Gilbreth’s favourite), “by jingo!” (Mr Gilbert’s favourite) and “snake’s hips!” (clearly quite the coolest thing for a teenager to say during the second decade of the twentieth century).

At the core of these tales is Mr Frank Gilbreth himself, a charismatic disciplinarian adored by his progeny and renowned the world over for his expertise in motion studies. He stuck fast to his belief that what worked in his factory would work in his home and thus put his motion-study theories to the test on a daily basis with his children. Using the earliest forms of technology available, he took “moving pictures” of his offspring performing tasks such as washing the dishes which he would then study to discern how he could reduce the number of motions involved in the process and teach them how to speed up the task. He also applied this method to assist in reducing the time it took his children to wash themselves in the bath and to dress themselves in the morning (for anyone interested, he proved that it is significantly faster and more efficient to button one’s shirt from bottom to top rather than top to bottom). 

In his work outside the home, Frank Gilbreth also applied motion study to surgery to reduce the time required to perform medical operations. He went to great lengths to obtain the material necessary for this research, even using his unwilling young clan as guinea pigs by filming the removal of each of their tonsils. This theatrical incident, which was executed by converting the upper floor of the Gilbreth residence into a hospital, involves two very large errors of judgement, too brilliant to describe here for fear of ruining the plot for future readers.

A natural teacher, Frank Gilbreth believed children’s capacity for learning was infinite, and he succeeded in teaching his prodigies several impressive skills. These included how to:

Communicate in Esperanto – because he believed it was “the answer to half the world’s problems”;

- comprehend French, German and Italian to an advanced level and speak all three of these languages at a conversational level - which he did by installing Victrolas in the household bathrooms which played language lessons more or less continuously in the mornings and evenings over a period of ten years;

 - touch type – which he accomplished after having helped train the fastest typist in the world. His method was to make the children memorise all the keys on the qwerty keyboard before they were even allowed to touch the typewriter. They were then taught which fingers to use via a colour-code system where their fingers were coloured with chalk to correspond with matching colours on a diagram of a keyboard drawn on paper. Finally, they were allowed to touch the treasured typewriter (the presence of which in the Gilbreth household caused just as much excitement as any form of new technology makes in most homes these days) but all the keys were covered with black caps to ensure no sneaky peeking could take place;

 - communicate in Morse code – which he achieved by painting the Morse alphabet on the back on the toilet door and on the ceilings in the bedrooms of their holiday house and then painting messages in Morse code on all the rest of the free wall space;

 - multiply two two-digit numbers in their heads – which involves memorizing the squares of all numbers up to twenty-five and yet, despite being complicated for anyone of any age to comprehend, he chipped away at this teaching challenging during mealtimes and within a couple of months the older children had learnt all the tricks involved (and for anyone keen to learn a new party trick, an example of how to do so is provided at the end of this post). 

To ensure the success of the day-to-day running of the household, the Gilbreths also organised their children into various family ‘committees’. The Purchasing Committee, for example, was responsible for deciding how the family budget would be divvied between clothes, sporting equipment, furniture and food and also for acquiring these items. The Utilities Committee issued one-cent fines for wasters of water and electricity while the Projects Committee ensured that house and garden chores were completed on time. Chores that were out of the normal schedule of work, such as painting the back garden fence, were auctioned off and the child who submitted the lowest bid for the job duly ‘won’ the chore and was paid the specified amount as extra pocket money once the task was completely to their father’s satisfaction.

An innovative manager of both machines and people, Mr Gilbreth would  whistle a self-composed ‘assembly call’ whenever he needed to gather his entire family together in one place to make an announcement or to introduce them to a guest (or whenever he was bored and just wanted all his children around him at once for some excitement). Much like the military-style scene in The Sound of Music, the call signified that the children should drop everything and congregate around their father in as minimum time possible. Although the authors recount that this assembly call, like most of their Dad’s ideas was “something more than a nuisance”, they also describe an incident which illustrates exactly how ingenious it really was: one day a bonfire of leaves on their driveway got out of control and spread rapidly around the side of the house. Noticing this, Mr Gilbreth whistled his assembly call and the entire house was evacuated in fourteen seconds flat. What the childen remembered most of that day though was the shouts that came from over their fence. Amidst the excitement, the lady in the house next door called out to her husband through the front door:

 “What’s going on?”

To which he called back: “The Gilbreth’s house is on fire. Thank God!”

“Shall I call the fire department?” they then heard the woman shout out.

To which he shouted back incredulously: “What’s the matter, are you crazy?”

In addition to the loathed assembly call, the Gilbreth parents would also ‘call the roll’ prior to departing en masse from any family excursion. While the children complained that this was a waste of time (the deadliest of sins in the Gilbreth household), it was a necessary hindrance since, on one occasion, Mr Gilbreth forgot to do a headcount when the family were departing from a restaurant where they had had lunch during a road trip and Frank Jr accidently got left behind. By the time it became obvious that he was missing and his father turned the car around to go back to the restaurant, several hours had gone past and it was now night-time. As Mr Gilbreth hurdled himself through the door to the restaurant desperate to find his son, he saw a pretty young woman “looking for business” while “drinking a highball in the second booth”. She greeted him merrily:

‘“Hello Pops … don’t be bashful. Are you looking for a naughty little girl?”

“Goodness no”, he stammered … “I’m looking for a naughty little boy”!’

It was not often that Frank Gilbrth was caught off guard at all; he was a quick-witted and jovial character who, except in the abovementioned incident, loved an audience and readily engaged in conversation with strangers. He also possessed a knack for guessing people’s nationality and would often capitalise on his extensive brood. The authors describe a time when the family were passing through a toll gate:

“Do my Irishmen come cheaper by the dozen?” he asked the man on the bridge.

“Irishmen is it? (the man replied) And I might have known it. Lord love you, and it takes the Irish to raise a crew of redheaded Irishmen like that. The Lord Jesus didn’t mean for any family like that to pay toll on my road. Drive through on the house”.

When they were safely over the other side of the bridge, Mrs Gilbreth replied: “If he knew you were a Scot he’d take a shillalah and wrap it round your tight-fisted head”.

As one might expect, having such a large family and parading them as he loved to do in his temperamental Pierce Arrow (which he affectionately nicknamed Foolish Carriage) attracted a great deal of attention. In the first decades of the last century, undoubtedly most ‘horseless carriages’ had the ability to turn heads such was their novelty, but one filled with 14 people created nothing less than a spectacle. While Mrs Gilbreth and the children squirmed upon hearing frequent remarks from pedestrians, ranging from curious to snide, Mr Gilbreth positively delighted in the attention. Once, when stopped at a traffic light, a man called out:

 “How do you grow them carrot tops, Brother?”

“These?” he bellowed. “These aren’t so much, Friend. You ought to see the ones I left at home”!

Throughout the biography, the spotlight is so frequently shone upon Mr Gilbreth and his children that one could be forgiven for thinking that Mrs Lillian Gilbreth just quietly went about her business in the background and found the task of rearing a dozen children remarkably undemanding.  Indeed, she is quoted to have never raised a hand to any one of her children, to have made a concerted effort to make as little noise as possible during her numerous homebirths so as not to scare any of the others and to have reared twelve ‘only children’. Moreover, she obtained a PhD in 1915, the first ever to be granted in the field of industrial psychology. From all accounts, she never lost her temper and left all disciplinary duties to her husband. In fact, if it were not for one documented remark, I would have finished the book under the illusion that she somehow found her domestic duties stress-free. This remark came after she returned from a prolonged journey with her first seven children (the others yet to be born) during the First World War. While her husband was working for the War Department, she and the children caught the train from New York all the way out to California where they stayed for the summer with her parents and siblings. On the train trip back, all seven children came down with whooping cough. Her husband was able to take leave from the war and surprise them by boarding the train in Chicago. When he asked her how the trip had gone, she replied:

“Next time you take the children out West, and I’ll go to war”.


Frank Bunker Gilbreth died of a heart attack in 1924 when their youngest child was just 2 years of age. Lillian outlived him by 48 years. Throughout her life she received numerous accolades, including 23 Honorary Degrees. She was at the forefront of industrial management throughout the twentieth century and was the inventor of the foot operated rubbish bin and the egg and butter refrigerator compartments. The story of how she brought up her children on her own after her husband’s death while continuing the industrial work they had started together is told in Belles on Their Toes, a sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, published in 1950.

And now for the promised party trick:

The authors state that “the explanation of how the (mathematical) tricks are worked is too complicated to explain in detail (in the novel)” but they do provide a formula for multiplying two identical two-digit numbers both between 25 and 50.

For example, to multiply 46 by 46, you work out how much greater 46 is than 25. The answer is 21. Then you figure out how much less 46 is than 50. The answer is 4. You square the 4 and get 16. Then you put the 21 and the 16 together, arriving at the answer:  2116.